A Stranger's Protection

by Brate

ATF Universe

Chapter Four

The team gathered at Buck and JD's place after work to wait for Vin's callback. Chris sighed in frustration, anxious to hear the Texan's voice. Ezra had joined them shortly thereafter, still refusing to look at Chris. The leader tried to at least act remorseful, by not smirking, but that couldn't be said about the rest of the team.

Buck started off the taunts, his eyes twinkling in mirth, "So Ez, what'd you do today?"

"My job," was the curt reply.

JD wasn't going to let an opportunity like this pass. He made a show of looking around the CDC before saying, "Do you know where we could find someone to clean this place for us? It's so hard to find good help."

Josiah and Nathan sniggered as they listened to the terrible twosome. Both tried to contain their smirks when the Southerner made his response.

"I dare say the only experience you'd require to clean this horrendous establishment would be as a toxic waste handler. Perhaps you could call the Chernobyl Hotline."

Buck pretended affront. "What? Since you've been swabbing floors in a swanky office building, you're too good for us?"

Ezra, tired from the day of janitorial work, and even more tired of the teasing, set his head into his hands and refused to answer. Chris took pity on him. "How was he?" he asked quietly.

The undercover agent lifted his head to look at his boss. "Mr. Tanner looked better than ever; his attire bordered on civilized." He glanced around the room, looking at each of his fellow agents one by one. "But I believe he would like to come home. I'm sure I don't have to remind you of Mr. Tanner's abhorrence for enclosed spaces."

"Poor Vin must be going stir-crazy," Nathan commented.

"We need to break him out," piped up JD, which earned him a smack on the back of his head. "What was that for?" he asked spinning round to face his tormentor.

"We can't do anything now, JD," said Buck. "He's being held under FBI jurisdiction. Until we can prove there's wrongdoing, our hands are tied."

"If we suspect misconduct, I figure we'll go get our brother out of there," acknowledged Josiah. "I don't require proof."

"Vin confirmed he hasn't been informed about his participation in the Witness Protection Program," Chris commented. Everyone nodded their heads. They each had known Vin wouldn't leave willingly.

Remarks were started, but cut off by the phone ringing. "Larabee."

Everyone listened in on Chris's end of the conversation. "I haven't heard anything of the kind." He got up and started pacing across the room. "I just talked to the DA an hour ago and he said they're going ahead with the trial." Chris reached the edge of the room, rotated, and started his stride again. "No, I'll find out what's going on. Call me back in an hour."

He flopped down on the sofa and leaned his head back against the cushions, sighing. The men looked around the room, each hoping that the other would inquire. Buck finally gave in, not hiding the concern in his voice. "Chris?"

Chris lifted his head. "Vin said Harris came in and told him there was a deal in the works between the DA and Mancino. If it goes through, he can leave."

Buck gritted shook his head. "No way Trotta's gonna let him walk out of there alive."

"If the DA's never heard of the deal..." Chris's voice trailed off. "JD, why don't you get on the computer and find out what you can about SAC Ken Harris."

"What am I looking for?"

"Anything out of the ordinary."

"Right." He set off to the other room to start his search.

"Buck, are you still on good terms with that secretary at the courthouse?" Chris inquired.

"Hell, Pard, which one?" Buck's smirk lit up the dismal room.

"Easy Stud," Chris grinned. "That redhead who seems to be a magnet for gossip. I want you find out if there are any rumors circulating about our Mr. Harris."

"It's a dirty job, but..." Buck chuckled as he left the room.

"I'm going to call our friendly neighborhood DA and find out what's going on," Chris stated.

While the others were occupied, Josiah recruited Nathan and Ezra to help him with dinner. Without too much trouble, they gathered enough ingredients to make a batch of Sanchez's famous 'Five-Alarm Chili'.

"The DA's office says Mancino showed no interest in any kind of deal," Chris relayed ten minutes later. "He asked why I wondered, so I said I was anxious to get Vin back ASAP."

"So right off the bat, Harris is lying," said Nathan.

"Definitely," Chris agreed.

Buck, who'd gotten some juicy gossip, joined them. "Seems our boy, Ken, likes his ladies to be professionals."

This brought up Ezra's attention. "He's paying courtesans for their time?"

"Not just their time," he wiggled his eyebrows. "Apparently quite a few of them; it's a joke among the secretaries."

"Look what I found," cried JD as he spread out some printouts before him, pointing to the first one. "For the last four months he's been taking out three hundred dollars from his savings account, every two or three days."

Josiah whistled. "That's a whole lotta lovin'."

JD looked confused, "Huh?"

"Go ahead and tell us what you found, Kid," Larabee prompted.

JD continued. "That stopped about a week ago. Then a cash payment of a thousand bucks was made on Monday."

"That's not that much, especially if he's being paid to 'take care' of Vin," Nathan commented.

"That's what I thought," the young agent nodded. " So I went into his wife's records; her account was given a payment of fifty grand the next day."

"He can't be that stupid," remarked Nathan.

"Maybe just that cocky," answered Buck.

"Shit!" Chris thundered, and took off running to his car, closely followed by the others. Josiah gave a sad look at his prepared meal, before turning off the burners and pursuing his friends.

Chris, Buck, and JD rode in the Ram while Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan drove in Nathan's Explorer. They made their way to the Weston Towers, hoping they'd arrive in time.

As Chris raced through town, Buck and JD were vainly trying to maintain their seats gripping the dashboard. Behind them, the trio in the Explorer were praying that the lights would remain with them and the truck in front would remain in one piece. Chris's cell rang and he tossed it to Buck. He didn't want to waste precious time fiddling with the phone.

"Hey, Junior!"

"Buck, where's Chris?"

"He's right here and we're on our way to get you."

"What happened?"

"Turns out Harris just might be working for the other side."


"Yeah, that's been the general consensus. Now you hold on tight 'til we get there. Can you lock yourself in?"

"No, the only place would be the bathroom, and I don't feel like dying there. Wouldn't look good in my obituary."

"You hang on, Vin," Buck advised. "Chris is attempting to break the sound barrier."

Chapter Five

Vin hung up the phone and surveyed the room. He'd gone through it his first day, and hadn't found anything useful. He'd asked Harris for his weapon back, stating he was a federal agent, and had the right to defend himself. Harris had just laughed, and vetoed the demand.

Running out of options, he retreated into the bedroom and made a 'Vin dummy' out of the pillows in the bed. He knew it was one of the oldest tricks in the book, but hopefully it could buy him some time.

The Texan went back to the outer room and sat down at the desk, keeping a watch on the door, but stood up again almost immediately. He stalked around the room like a caged tiger, raking his hands through his hair; his heart was pounding and his throat dry. He stopped when he heard the outer door being quietly unlocked, and sprinted into the bedroom, grabbing the lamp from next to the bed. Vin stationed himself at the side of the entrance, and waited for the intruder to show himself. Listening carefully, he could hear someone slowly moving toward the open door. A hand came through first holding a gun complete with silencer, pointed directly at the bed. Confident his deception was working, the sharpshooter relaxed and let the prowler enter. He wasn't surprised when the dim lighting revealed Harris.

When Harris was through the doorway, he released three shots into the pillows as Vin swung the lamp down. The sharpshooter scooped up the weapon and left his adversary sprawled on the floor. He sprinted out of the open office door into the hallway. He headed past the elevators, rushed into the stairwell, and paused, listening. He heard voices rising up from the floors below and debated with himself. He didn't want to involve innocents in his conflict, and at this point, only trusted the team. Chris and the guys were on their way, but no telling how long they'd be.

"Screw it!" he swore and started his ascent. His legs tore up the narrow staircase and he slipped as he neared the top. The gun went sailing through the railing, clattering as it hit every rail on the way down. The Texan cursed silently and continued his journey.


Chris pulled the Dodge up onto the front steps of the Towers, trailed by the Ford. He jumped out, followed a heartbeat later by his passengers and teammates.

"ATF! Open up!" The hostile leader shouted, banging on the front door. He showed his badge to the incoming security guard. One look at Chris's crazed expression had the middle-aged man happy to comply.

The team sped to the elevator where they discovered an agent blocking their way. Chris stepped forward, with his badge showing, to 'reason' with the agent. "You're done with Tanner," he stated, forcefully. Buck stood at his shoulder as the rest backed them up, hands on their weapons.

The youthful agent drew his gun, shaking his head. "I'm sorry I can't let you do that," he said. "I have my orders."

Buck stepped forward before his oldest friend lost all reason. "Now listen, Son. Your boss is crooked and we aim to get our friend before he's killed," he calmly told the lawman.

"You're lying, and I'm not falling for any tricks," the young man stammered. "Your man is under the Bureau's protection and we won't give him up."

"JD," Chris called out. "Show him." The youngest agent stepped forward with the downloaded bank statements, while Buck told of the rumors he'd heard. Chris watched the different expressions cross the agent's face, and played his ace card. "If Tanner dies, you'll be charged as an accessory."

That seemed to push him to a decision, and he let the team inside the elevator. Introducing himself as Special Agent Marco, he explained that he was sent down to protect the route while Harris prepped the witness for travel.

Josiah's brow furrowed, "Why would he need to move?"

"I was told he needed to be placed in a more secure location to await the trial," Marco replied.

"So he could commit his odious act unobstructed," Ezra murmured. Hearing this, Marco lowered his head in apparent shame, then steeled his shoulders and grasped his gun. Not quickly enough for its passengers, the elevator reached the nineteenth floor.

Ezra led the race down the hall. Noting the lack of a guard in the hall, the team entered the office space cautiously and spread out. Chris motioned for Josiah and JD to check the door off to the left while the others moved to the right.

Through the door, they saw the scene of an obvious confrontation complete with shattered lamp and bullet-ridden comforter. Chris knew it couldn't be Vin under there, but still felt his chest tighten in anticipation.

"It's okay, Pard," Buck said quietly, feeling Chris clench as he pulled back the cover. "It's not Vin..." He looked over at Chris and met his gaze. "Where would he go?" he asked his leader.

Chris thought for a moment as if finally aware of his best friend. "The roof," he snapped.

The agents ran down the hallway after their boss, heading toward the elevator bank. "How do you know?" asked Agent Marco.

"Tanner likes the high ground," was Larabee's curt reply.

Chris bypassed the elevator and entered the stairwell. "It's faster," he yelled in response to Nathan's question. His heart was pounding, increasing in intensity with every step.

Hang on Vin.

Chapter Six

On the roof, Vin sought refuge behind a large heat duct, his wary eyes trained on the door waiting for Harris. His wait was short; he held his breath at the dirty agent's appearance.

"There's no point in hiding, Tanner," Harris called. "You might as well make it quick and painless." His voice was full of cocky confidence as he pulled out his backup piece.

The sharpshooter refused to rise to the bait, and crouched lower. He listened to Harris circling the roof, checking out all the possible hiding spots. Vin's keen senses were on full alert. His heart hammered in his chest as he readied himself. As Harris neared, Vin launched himself from his concealment, tackling the agent onto the tarry surface, sending the gun flying.

The opponents sprang up, circling each other, waiting for an opening. Vin made his move first; throwing a roundhouse kick that doubled Harris over. He followed through with a gut punch and leveled a blow at the agent's jaw. Harris ducked the next punch and backhanded Vin brutally, snapping his head back. When Vin refocused on his adversary, he found himself facing the loaded pistol.

Diving behind a vent stack, he heard the bullet's report as he felt it slam into him. He grunted as the projectile burned a hole through his side, the momentum smashing him to the ground. Grunting as the harsh surface bit into his tender flesh, he twisted around. The world was spinning as he tried to rise. With blurry vision he saw Harris materialize before him.

"End of the line, Tanner," the corrupt agent sneered.

I'm sorry Chris, Vin thought as he stared down the barrel of the gun, awaiting his death.

Six bullets from six different guns ripped into Harris and he looked down in shock as the force pushed him off the building. Vin whipped his head around and saw his entire team with their weapons drawn. He rolled onto his knees and attempted to raise himself up.

The medic reached him first, and tried to push him back down. "I'm fine, Nathan," Vin gasped in obvious pain. "I think it went right through."

Nathan eyed the blood-covered shirt and hooted, "Yeah, right. Why don't you get your ass back down before you fall down."

Chris dropped next to Vin, gripping his shoulder. "What the hell took you so long?" the Texan asked his best friend. He looked at him closer, taking in his sweaty and red-faced appearance. "Ya look like hell, Cowboy."

"I'll tell you what," Buck said as he knelt next to Vin on the opposite side. "Our boy, Chris, decided that the damn elevator was way too slow so he ran up the last few flights." He laughed, his eyes twinkling with mischief. "We met him as we stepped off the 'vator."

"Shut up, Buck," Chris growled, his green eyes trained on the substantial amount of blood pooling under Tanner. "Dammit Nate, can't you do something? He's leaking like a sieve."

"Nice, Chris..." Vin hissed, eyeing the dark-skinned agent's deft fingers.

Nathan pressed a crude bandage against the wounds to slow the blood loss, causing Vin to cry out. "Dammit, Nathan, it don't hurt until you get to it."

"You be quiet and let Nathan do his job," Buck warned almost paternally.

Josiah called for an ambulance while Ezra, JD, and Agent Marco stepped over to the building's edge and peered down at the shattered body below.

"Traitors: not just for breakfast anymore," commented the young agent.

Ezra looked over at him perplexed. "What in the world are you talking about?" he queried.

JD shrugged, "Well he is flat as a pancake."

The Southerner groaned, covering his face with his hands. "That is truly the most tasteless thing I have ever heard you verbalize. We have got to remove you from you mentor's influence." He turned to the now pale FBI agent. "You might want to notify your office that they will be requiring a new SAC." The young lawman nodded his head and moved toward the door.

Their leader's commanding voice brought the two agents from the ledge. "JD, you go downstairs and direct the EMTs here." Chris took off his jacket and placed it under Vin's head. He looked down at his friend, "I can't let you outta my sight for two minutes without you getting in trouble."

"I know you'll always be there to bail me out," Vin countered.

"Damn straight." Chris glared down at his best friend. "You do know I'll be expecting some compensation pretty soon; you're wearing me out."

"That's cause yer gettin' old," Vin chuckled weakly, trying to stay awake.

The pressure from Nathan's hands caused the wounded man to grimace. Through watery blue eyes, Vin glanced up at Chris who was watching anxiously. "I'm fine," he grunted. Although his side was burning, he tried to keep the pain from showing on his face.

"You can't lie worth shit, Tanner." Chris shook his head, seeing the pain-filled eyes. "Go ahead and yell...you're with family."

The Texan defied the pain and answered the lingering question. "You know I still gotta testify," he groaned, before falling into unconsciousness.

Chris rode with Vin in the ambulance, remaining by the wounded man's side through the ER and up to surgery. He gripped his blood-covered jacket, as the doors to the OR slammed shut, blocking him from his best friend.

"Damn sorry-assed Texan..." he whispered, before following the well-known path to the waiting room.

The team arrived, except Josiah, who had stayed behind to deal with the local cops, and settled into the all-too-familiar room. For once there was no pacing, no card-playing, and no talking, as each man was lost in his own thoughts, hoping they hadn't got Vin back just to lose him again.

Two hours later a doctor approached, backing away when they all jumped up to greet him. Chris reached the surgeon first.

"How is he?" the leader drilled.

"Mr. Tanner will be just fine," assured the surgeon, prompting sighs of relief from the worried men. "He was a very lucky man; the bullet nicked his kidney, but we were able to stop the bleeding and patch him up." He looked around at all the men as he stated, "He'll be in recovery for another hour, then moved to a private room."

"I need to see him," Larabee demanded.

"I'm afraid you'll have to wait until he's settled in his room," came the response.

"He's the key witness to a high profile murder and one of my men will be with him at all times." Larabee's commanding tone matched the steel in his eyes.

Doctor Becker saw the deadly serious demeanor of the men, and quickly made up his mind. "All right," the physician nodded. "If one of your men will follow me..."

Nathan stepped forward immediately, his healing instincts at the forefront. Chris turned and addressed the rest. "I want you all to spread out and keep a sharp lookout. Mancino's men are sure to know Harris failed. Keep in touch," he directed as they split up and moved out.


JD walked back and forth in front of the recovery room door. The youngest team member was waiting to transport Vin to his room. Orrin Travis had been contacted and kept abreast of the situation. He agreed with Chris's insistence that the team take on the protective duty. JD glanced at an orderly passing by and then resumed his pacing.

A few minutes later, something was niggling at his mind. He tried to pinpoint the thought, but couldn't grasp it. Ezra walked into his line of vision and he stared at the approaching agent. Looking him up and down, JD realized the missing piece. "He's here! Tell Nathan!" he cried to Ezra and pulled his gun, ducking into the room that the orderly had entered moments before.

As he entered the room, JD held his gun before him and his eyes swept the area. It was a supply room, empty, save for two beds and a variety of medical equipment. Racing to the opposite door, he entered the hallway found behind.

Ezra yelled a warning to Nathan in the recovery room, and dashed after his young partner.

JD crept along the hallway, tuning into the sounds in his immediate vicinity. He heard muttering and a whispered curse around the corner and stealthily moved closer. Peeking around the turn he saw the missing orderly kneeling down on the floor fiddling with something. His internal alarm bells were ringing nonstop as he stalked up behind the occupied worker.

"Federal agent...Raise your hands where I can see them!" JD ordered.

The hospital worker stopped his movements and slowly raised his hands. JD moved to the side to see what the man had been doing. At his feet, the agent saw what appeared to be a bomb.

JD gasped in realization. This must be the other side of the wall of Vin's room. The bomb contained enough C4 to level not only the recovery room, with Vin and Nathan in it, but the entire floor as well. "All right, stand up and move away," he demanded of the orderly.

The man started to get up and turned to face the agent, chuckling when he got his first look at JD. "You're just a boy," he scoffed in a gravely voice. "Why don't you run along while I finish up here?"

Agent Dunne gripped his weapon and responded, "I don't think so. I want you to move away...now!"

The false orderly smiled maliciously and shifted to the left, seemingly following the order. JD motioned for the man to continue, when the man suddenly jerked back toward the device.

Ezra had pursued his counterpart down the hallway and emerged on the scene in time to witness the standoff. As the orderly whipped around, he and JD fired their weapons, sending the felon crashing back into the wall and slumping onto the floor.

Both Ezra and JD moved forward to secure the attempted assassin.

Standish flipped out his cell and updated his leader, stressing the need for the Bomb Squad. "How did you know?" Ezra asked, placing his handcuffs on the dead man's wrists.

"His shoes were Italian loafers, orderlies wouldn't wear that kind," JD replied, smirking.

"Ah ha. Apparently my lessons in fine apparel have not fallen upon deaf ears."

The gunplay brought the rest of the team running. After surveying the scene and congratulating his roommate on his sharp thinking, Buck went to go smooth things over with the hospital staff, and wait for the Bomb Squad.

"Good job, JD," Team Seven's leader imparted with a squeeze to the proud youth's shoulder, before leaving to check on Vin.

JD's grin was answer enough.

Chapter Seven

After being stuck in the hospital for several days, Vin was finally being released. The day before, DA Fontaine had come to see him, in a sour mood. He told both Vin and Josiah that Joey Mancino had been killed in jail the previous night. Apparently, Leo Trotta thought it easier and safer to take out his own man after both attempts to kill Vin fell through. This, of course, destroyed the case the DA was trying to build against Trotta; Vin was now free to go home, something he had been dreaming about for over a week. With the threat gone, the guards could relax which cheered Vin up immeasurably, no longer feeling as if he were under a microscope.

Vin sat on the side of his hospital bed and fidgeted. He would be sore for quite a while, and couldn't go back on active duty until he was fully healed, but he'd be happy as long as he could get the hell out of here. Where is he? Vin wondered again, just as Chris strolled through the door.

Chris saw his agent anxiously rise off the bed. "Ready to go?" he laughed. Taking in the dark circles under his friend's eyes, he recalled the information imparted to him by Vin's attending nurses. Both they and his team had mentioned how little sleep the Texan had been getting. During his own watch, Chris had noticed Vin would ignore him, while pretending to sleep.

"Oh, yeah. The doc's already signed the papers, let's go," the sharpshooter said, brushing past his friend. For once there was no argument as he smiled at the nurse and sat gingerly in the wheelchair for his departing ride. The blond smiled, and grabbed Vin's forgotten bag, trailing after the sharpshooter and nurse.

Vin didn't try to hide his surprise as Chris pulled his truck up in front of Vin's apartment building. "I thought you'd be taking me out to the ranch," he said with a slight question in his voice.

"I figured you'd rather come here." Chris saw the look of gratitude directed at him. "This doesn't mean you get to run all over town, you're still healing. I'll pick you up tomorrow morning and you can hang out at the office." He looked over at his friend, "And I can keep an eye on you to make sure you stay out of trouble."

Agreeing, Vin stepped out of the car and saw his jeep parked in front. He glanced at his friend, who was getting the bag out of the car, then nodded at his car. Chris saw the question in his colleague's eyes and answered, "Buck brought it over. We found it in the police impound yard and were afraid they'd crush it after seeing what crappy shape it was in."

"Hey, it runs," Vin started to say, but stopped when he realized that's exactly how he found himself in this mess. "Never mind," he said instead. Chris chuckled, knowing exactly what he'd been going to say.

Stepping through the door of the apartment, Vin stopped and scanned his place. He walked over to his CD holder and ran his fingers along it. Then moving to his desk, he picked up his harmonica, and put it back down, giving his computer a tap before moving on to the next item.

Chris was content to watch as Vin went around the room, touching and patting things, before settling on the couch. "I know it ain't much, but it's mine," he heard Vin say softly.

Chris sat down in the chair and a comfortable silence filled the room. He soon realized the Texan had drifted off to sleep. He rose, got a blanket from the bedroom, and covered his slumbering friend.

"Welcome home, Cowboy."

The End

Comments to: brate01@hotmail.com